The conference on the future of Europe creates a unique opportunity for ordinary citizens to speak out on what kind of Europe they want to see. European Citizens’ Event and the first plenary reveal that European citizens want more.
The future of Europe is often discussed, but since the 10th of March, things have been slightly different. On that date, the presidents of the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of the EU signed a joint declaration to officially start the conference on the future of Europe.
The digital platform central to the conference, futureu.europa.eu, through which citizens can exchange ideas and create and participate in local events, was opened the following month.
The conference envisions a radically different type of decision-making than before. Not only are all EU institutions involved but also European citizens. The focus on ordinary citizens was emphasized by all the co-chairs of the conference – the vice-president of the Commission Dubravka Suica, Portuguese EU affairs minister Ana Paula Zacarias and the representative of the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt. Beyond the aforementioned platform, European citizens are represented through the citizen and civil society representatives and citizen panels set to start in autumn.
Involvement of citizens
The European Citizen’s event, hosted by the Portuguese presidency in Lisbon on the 17th of June, kicked off the part of the conference dedicated to citizens' representatives. As the representative of Estonian citizens, I was able to not only converse with the co-chairs of the conference but also meet other citizen representatives. Continuing Covid-19 restrictions limited the participation, though – only a third of the representatives made it to the event.
Why did the conference start now? Although the Covid-19 pandemic may seem like the obvious reason at first glance, then in reality it was postponed by it and should have started last year. Portuguese representative Zacarias said that huge changes are ahead of Europe, which is why it is necessary to consult the people on those topics. Although the EU has been successful in tackling crises so far, then to build a common future, the citizens must be involved in the decision-making, she added.
Guy Verhofstadt contended that Europe is now active and wants to listen to people and that gives the citizens a unique opportunity to give input to the future of Europe. While citizens provide the input, the output will be provided by the EU, by creating concrete policies out of people’s wishes. This was echoed by Dubravka Suica who added that the digital platform will allow people to discuss Europe’s future at all levels – European, national, and local.
Plenaries held in Strasbourg act as interim conclusions to assess the results of the events and the ideas section of the platform. They should eventually lead to a report in March 2022 that could be used as a blueprint for future reforms at the EU level.
A half measure
At the same time, it is difficult to look past the fact that the conference is also a legitimization process for the EU’s reform plans. The role given to the citizens is not huge, limited to suggesting ideas and organizing/attending events. It is also worth mentioning that ideas are primarily sought in eight predetermined categories. Demography, an important topic for quite a few representatives at the conference, is not one of them.
Verhofstadt’s idea that the conference is a new type of politics can thus only be partly agreed with. Although citizens are indeed engaged, the main decisions (like what are the priority topics) are still decided upon in Brussels and there is no guarantee that ideas popular among the people will truly be implemented. EU institutions have instead stressed that citizens’ ideas should be implemented – whether they will be is ultimately decided by the EU institutions.
There is a popular saying in public policy studies that politicians use science like a drunkard uses a lamp post – for support, not illumination. The same danger exists with the conference. During the Lisbon conference, I had the chance to ask Mr Verhofstadt whether citizens have a chance to participate beyond the limited role given to them.
While his answer did not fully commit to either yes or no, it is clear that there are indeed no other choices of participation for the citizens. They have been given the observer role, as even if the citizen’s idea is popular, it does not seem that she could have any say over how it will be implemented.
Many bright minds are working in the EU who are capable of producing sound policies that improve the lives of people in all member states. We would not need citizens to come up with ideas – but they are needed to give the new policies legitimacy. However, if their involvement is limited, it is the legitimacy that suffers, not any potential future reforms.
That communication about the conference has been badly handled is hard to disagree with. At the same time, it would not be a panacea to make the conference successful. The carrot offered by the EU for participation is not the tastiest one – being at a passenger seat when you have been told that you are the driver of change in Europe.
Greater success in communication does not necessarily mean a qualitative success of having better ideas. When Mr Verhofstadt talked about advertising the conference on TikTok, I started thinking about whether it advertising everything everywhere has any merit. Every social media platform has its intended use and entertainment-focused TikTok is certainly not the place where the EU’s explanatory ad material would break through. Additionally, there’s no telling whether TikTok users are even interested in writing down the European future.
Framing it as a communication problem also signals a bias – that the idea is inherently good and the problem only exists in the means of informing people. Just like all decisions made by national governments are not good just because our state is doing them for us, we should not believe that every EU decision is good just because it has focused on engaging the citizens. Especially if the involvement of citizens is minimal.
The aim of the EU is not just to do something. Decisions are made to improve the life of European citizens and to secure Europe’s future. Because it is the citizens that ultimately end up being for the conference, we should not acquiesce to mediocrity but demand the best result for our money.
The dreaded F-word
All that leads to the question of whether the EU can increase popular participation without changing its decision-making processes. The legitimacy crisis is certainly an important topic at both the EU and national levels. If the discussions involving citizen participation seem to logically lead to federalism, then a renewed sense of Europeanness is unlikely to follow.
The EU’s problem is not that its member states or not European enough. The member states are Europe, and it is the EU that needs to bridge the gap between itself and the member states. Attempts to federalize the EU from Brussels will inevitably start to eat away at the EU’s core value – united in diversity.
Youth-centric, but maybe too much?
It is also clear that the digital platform is intended for young people who also tend to be more pro-EU. As my Slovakian colleague Zuzana Hozlárová aptly pointed out, the digital platform excludes the older population of the EU that does not use a computer. Although the share of internet users has increased significantly in the last few years, the inclusion and marginalization of different societal groups undeniably vary.
This fact was also pointed out by quite a few speakers in the plenary, like the Greek and Romanian civil society representatives Ioannis Vardakastanis and Alexandrina Najmowicz, who spoke of historically marginalized and disabled people.
There are other problems with the platform, too. Shifting through the ideas on the platform, it is easy to end up in a situation where even after applying filters, you see 300+ ideas. Average citizens do not have the time to go through all of them. The system rewards the already popular few ideas while others are rarely seen at all. Still, the vice-president of the Commission Dubravka Suica said they do not plan to change the platform.
The conference on the future of Europe is an excellent idea – people need to be involved in political decision-making. If the platform stays in use after the conference, it could usher in a new era in EU decision-making. However, the EU must first prove that the conference is indeed a mechanism of inclusion rather than legitimation, by offering European citizens more ways of getting involved.
DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.